Updated: Dec 20, 2019
Stress and anxiety are incredibly common issues and cause significant problems in our daily lives. Thankfully, there are tools and strategies that are very effective in bringing our lives back into balance.
Intentional progressive muscle relaxation and abdominal breathing are two techniques essential for managing anxiety and stress. These techniques are specifically designed for relaxation training and are an essential part of stress management and various anxiety treatment programs.
Once you've learned these skills you can use them in your day to day life at any time without the need to close your eyes or listen to an audio file. When you first start though, it helps enormously to be guided in a still, quiet, safe place.
The breathing technique I recommend differs slightly from many others, based on my initial training as a breath practitioner and decades of experience using breath for relaxation and meditation. I prefer to use abdominal relaxation to induce a slow, natural breathing rhythm. Many other breathing techniques direct you to control your breathe to force a slower rhythm (for example, one breath every 6 seconds). Forcing slow breathing can be useful at times, most notably during panic attacks, but I believe it introduces potential problems if used as a standard relaxation, especially for people with anxiety.
My guided relaxation tracks are available for download via the 'Store' in this site's menu:
- Guided Relaxation with background music
- Guided Relaxation - voice only
I recommend that you start with the first one that has gentle background music. They are very similar. Try the voice-only version if you dislike music in your meditations or become too accustomed to the first one. Additionally, the silent spaces in the voice-only version may provide an experience with a little more mindful awareness.
Let me know if you need a coupon or you have problems downloading and using this 'meditation medication'.
ANXIETY and STRESS
What we feel as 'stress' is the result of a physiological stress response, otherwise known as the Fight, Flight or Freeze response (or often the Fight or Flight Response for people who like rhymes but not by people who have felt the immobilising power of the Freeze). The stress response is a function of the sympathetic nervous system - one half of the part of our nervous system that helps manage the activity of our organs and our lives. It which is meant to work in concert with the parasympathetic nervous system to give balance to our lives. The parasympathetic system is also known as the Rest and Digest Response, again by people who like rhymes and by psychologists looking for simpler terms to use when talking about anatomy. It helps us rest to conserve energy, rejuvenate and recover, digest, and sleep.
However, people in chronically and/or intensely stressful situations have over-active Fight or Flight systems and are out of balance. So too are people with anxiety conditions. Which is why learning these relaxation skills of activating Rest and Digest response, calming and re-balancing yourself, is so critical. I recommend you watch this Crash Course video (followed by this one and this one) on the autonomic nervous system; it will explain these systems with the aid of fancy graphics and an entertaining presenter.
If you are chronically stressed, are often anxious, or are undertaking a specific anxiety treatment program**, I recommend you use the relaxation technique at least daily in order to develop the skill and train your mind/body how to activate the parasympathetic side of your autonomic nervous system. Your goal is to be able to achieve a more relaxed state on demand. This will form the physiological foundation of your recovery and your therapist will guide you in using that to help you become free from the chains of fear, panic, and anxiety.
Once you have learned this technique you can use this 'meditation medication' PRN - as required - when you notice stress. I can show you how to do a 5 to 30 second, super-quick relaxation without even needed to stop what you are doing, once you have the basic skills. This will help keep your stress and anxiety levels lower, reducing episodes that intrude on your life.
If sleep is an issue, I recommend using it each night to relax you before sleeping; I guarantee if you do this nightly for 10 days you will sleep better. I often use relaxation or a guided sleep meditation and have had great results.
Of course, you should have no screens in bed (except for setting up a guided relaxation) and 30 minutes of calm down prior, doing your normal routine before bed which tells your mind-body that it's sleep time. I also recommend low caffeine / chocolate late in the day as well as calming everything down and invoking a rural ambience through the use of low lights, reading paper-based or paper-like media, etc.
Mindfulness and relaxation are different things. Mindfulness often has a side-effect of leaving us more relaxed, but it is not our specific intention when practising mindfulness to become relaxed. I'll do a post on mindfulness at a later time. In the meantime, if you're interested in pursuing it further, Jon Kabbat-Zinn is an excellent mindfulness teacher. There are hundreds of others but this guy was there before it was trendy. You'll find his meditations here.
If you have abnormal blood pressure, inadequate or disturbed sleep, or digestive problems, you may find that using this practice to balance your autonomic nervous system may improve those conditions.
Many clients mention that they've heard of or done some mindfulness. Mindfulness is awesome and I fully recommend it, but please be aware that it is not the same as relaxation. Mindfulness can have a side-effect of relaxing us, but relaxation should not be the primary aim of mindfulness. The primary aim of relaxation training and practice is, you guessed it, relaxation; to directly work to activate your parasympathetic nervous system ('relaxation response').
As you may know there are lots of apps for meditation these days. Many people tell me that they use the HeadSpace app, or Smiling Mind (but be aware that Smiling Mind is for mindfulness, not relaxation).
One of the apps I use is Insight Timer - https://insighttimer.com/ This app has many, many guided meditations focused on relaxing, sleeping, starting your day, etc. It also still has a free version, unlike many of the others.
Try a couple that look interesting. If you don't warm to the person's voice, choose another. Personally, I like Bethany Auriel-Hagan's voice particularly for sleep-oriented exercises. Meg James (Australian voice) also has some acceptable sleep meditations. If you find any tracks on there particularly useful I'd love to know - please leave a comment below or email me.
OTHER THINGS YOU CAN DO
Progressive muscle relaxation and abdominal breathing are only two things you can do to induce a Rest and Digest response; there are lots and lots of things you can do to help move your system toward a more balance state. You could listen to chilled tunes, sit quietly in nature, take a bath, get a massage, eat some nice food, exercise (after which you will feel a relaxation response), do something for someone else... the list is long if you think about it. What is it that stimulates your Rest and Digest response? Good luck with it. Let me know how you go and if you have any questions.
* Such as, generalised, social, or performance anxiety, panic episodes, post-traumatic stress, or a phobia.